Secret Agent X-9: Watching Alex Raymond Mature

Nearly 90 years ago yesterday Jan. 22 1934, the collaboration between Dashiell Hammett and Alex Raymond launched as Secret Agent X-9. Designed to respond to Dick Tracy’s massive success with the literary cachet of Hammett and the rising talent of Raymond, X-9 looked better on paper perhaps than it did, well, on the actual page. The famous innovator of the hard-boiled style was at the tail end of his productive output and clearly did not give his best effort. After crafting just a few very uneven scenarios, Dash got canned.

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When Superman Was Woke?

Everyone is familiar with Clark Kent’s (aka Superman) origin story. Orphaned by cosmic circumstance, rocketed to Earth, fostered by the midwestern Kents, superpowered by our planet’s physics, and taking on his secret identity as the milquetoast reporter are a story etched in modern American pop mythology. Less attention has been paid to his political roots. Every comic strip in the adventure genre especially has an identifiable political slant most obviously in its choices of wrongs to right and the villains it constructs. The famously conservative Chester Gould in Dick Tracy and populist Harold Gray in Little Orphan Annie were the most overt. Less obvious was the implicit imperialist sensibilities implicit in Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates and most of the adventure pulps that characterized non-Western cultures as at best quaintly primitive or at worst inherently brutal.

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Dick Tracy Battles The JDs: Flattop Jr. and Joe Period

Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy was created in the 1930s as a response to the romanticization of gangsters and declining respect for law enforcement. And throughout its run under the notoriously conservative artist made no secret of his disdain for many modern trends. In the 1950s when mania around “juvenile delinquency” dominated popular culture, Gould added to his famous rogues gallery a few of these teen terrorists. Most notable for its outright weirdness (even for Gould) are the 1956 episodes spanning Joe Period and Flattop, Jr., the son of one of Tracy’s most famous nemeses of the prior decade.

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Chester Riley, Al Capp, and Dr. Wertham: The Great Comics Crisis of…1948?

Conventional wisdom holds that the infamous moral panic around crime and horror comics bloomed in 1953 with the popularization of Frederic Wertham’s dubious “research” in general magazines and the formation of Senate subcommittee on juvenile delinquency. But the proliferation of Wertham’s landmark Seduction of the Innocent (1954) diatribe against comics, and the haranguing of Senators Kefauver and Hendrickson was just the culmination of a controversy that had accompanied the rise of more adult and violent comic books throughout the 1940s. Parents worried about the bullets and blood that flew across the color pages of blockbuster titles like Crime Does Not Pay and its many imitators long before the EC titles and their followers horrified parents and legislators even more.

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Scorchy Transformed: Noel Sickles’ Quiet Revolution

I admit to coming late to appreciating Noel Sickles’ artistic prowess and influence. Several years ago I found an affordable but beaten copy of the LOAC volume on the artist and his short, legendary stint on the Scorchy Smith strip in the mid 1930s, though I barely cracked it at the time. Sickles is best recalled by comics historians as Milton Caniff’s friend, studio-mate and collaborator who introduced the more famous artist to the chiaroscuro style that came to define Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon. Sickles himself spent but a few years leading his own strip before moving on to a lucrative career in commercial art, magazine and book cover illustration.

Now that I have dug into the LOAC Scorchy Smith reprint, with deft commentary/background from Jim Steranko and Bruce Canwell, I am gobsmacked by how thoughtful a talent he was. Moreover, his trail of influence reaches far beyond Caniff.

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Best Books of 2022: Bungleton Green and the Mystic Commandos

Bungleton Green was the longest running comic strip in the history of American Black newspapers, and an extended reprint of its greatest, wildest period during WWII is long overdue. But New York Review Comics has come through with this well-designed volume embracing artist Jay Jackson’s 1943-1944 sequence Bungleton Green and the Mystic Commandos. The strip began in 1920 with Leslie Rogers’ rendering of his eponymous character as a comic shirker, gambler and goof in the model of Moon Mullins or Barney Google. When the Chicago Defender’s prolific cartoonist Jay Jackson took the reins in the early 1930s, he made Bungleton into more of an adventurer, riding a genre that dominated the 1930s with Dick Tracy, Terry and the Pirates, Flash Gordon and Little Orphan Annie. Meanwhile, Jackson was also freelancing artwork for the science-fiction pulps and honing his skills as a “good girl” artists, skills that would soon inform a major turn in his weekly strip work.

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Best Books of 2022: Terry and the Pirates – Master Collection

There are many reasons to celebrate and treasure this year’s most lavish reprint project. More than a decade after its inaugural Terry and the Pirates reprinting, the Library of American Comics revisits the pioneering adventure strip in a planned 13 volume, 11×14 format and using much better source material. This is the clearest look we have ever had at Milton Caniff’s masterpiece. But the best part of the project is the regular, compressed calendar on which LOAC is releasing quarterly volumes.

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